The widely watched criminal trial of George Zimmerman was concluded this past weekend. The civil action brought by the family of Trayvon Martin against the homeowners' association where their son died has also been resolved, allegedly for a 7-figure sum.
What will the long-term impact be on volunteerism in shared ownership communities throughout the country?
The most obvious result should be a higher level of scrutiny of the purposes for various volunteer activities and the individuals recruited to perform same. Previously, boards worried most about their volunteers being injured while performing a service for the community, not about their volunteers harming others. In my own HOA, we have had a number of volunteer committees over the years including a Garden Committee and a Social Committee. The purpose of the Garden Committee was to beautify the community (and save money) by having volunteers do seasonal flower plantings and regular garbage pickup in our common areas. The biggest concern at the time the committee was created was that a volunteer might get heat stroke. Our Social Committee was tasked with creating a variety of community events throughout the year as well as preparing and mailing out the association's newsletter. This committee also did not seem to raise any red flags in terms of potential liability although I have since heard of other communities where social activities were designed to exclude certain residents, thereby exposing the association to a potential lawsuit.
Why do many communities use and/or encourage volunteer activity? With association finances as tight as they have been over the last few years, volunteerism is a way to continue providing essential community services on a diminished budget. However, the Trayvon Martin case proves that not every volunteer activity is safe. Many communities will now reach the conclusion that security is one area where volunteers are not a wise choice.
However, if a community is intent on looking to enhance its current security measures with a Neighborhood Watch program, it is essential that certain preliminary steps be taken:
- The association's insurance agent should be contacted to ensure that the association is protected for the actions of volunteers;
- The local police department should be enlisted to teach the Neighborhood Watch program what can and cannot be done legally. Typically, this includes a strict adherence to an "Observe and Report" protocol;
- The volunteers for the Neighborhood Watch should be screened to ensure that they have not had problems in the past with violence;
- Written guidelines should be created specifically outlining the scope of the Neighborhood Watch's authority and the role of each volunteer on the Watch;
- The volunteers should sign releases protecting the association in the event they are injured or killed while undertaking their Neighborhood Watch duties; and
- The association should regularly check on the Neighborhood Watch's activities to ensure that the program is safe and that all volunteers are complying with the protocol.
It is not advisable for an association to know about a volunteer activity but to take no responsibility for same by saying they are not endorsing it. If a dangerous activity, volunteer or otherwise, is taking place on property over which the association has authority or control, the board of directors must get involved to either regulate or stop that activity.
Hopefully, Trayvon Martin's legacy in community associations will not be an end to all volunteerism but a renewed focus on the activities neighbors can undertake together which result in a healthy, harmonious community.